Glacier Point & Sentinel Dome Winter

This is the second in a series of three winter routes in Yosemite National Park (for the first, see Mount Watkins Winter). Glacier Point is one of the great viewpoints in Yosemite and it’s even better in winter for a couple reasons. First (and foremost), peace and solitude can be found. There’s no tourist buses and no tourists. If you’re doing Glacier Point in a day, the folks who spend the night at the hut are on their way back or yet to arrive so there’s a good chance you have the vista all to yourself. Second, a snow-capped Half Dome and surrounding high country seems to add another layer the dramatic vista. It’s been since 2013 since I was at Glacier Point in the winter. That time it was a cross country ski and very cold after a big storm cycle so the winter wonderland was in full effect. Unfortunately the spigot largely turned off the second half of that winter as the multi-year drought commenced.  This year the snows are back and California experienced a real winter so it was time to revisit Glacier Point. This time I would bring my snowshoes instead of skiing. It turns out the Glacier Point Road is groomed to the point that snowshoes are usually not necessary in the morning. However, I would make a side trip to Sentinel Dome and for that snowshoes are definitely required as the snow was deep and unconsolidated. Whether it’s worth carrying snowshoes for the short side trip Sentinel Dome is up for debate. If I bring snowshoes again I will likely add on another viewpoint like Taft Point to make better use of the gear. Otherwise, an out-and-back to Glacier Point is largely doable as a run on the hard packed groomed surface with possibly some slip on traction device on the shoes and possibly some hiking instead of running in the afternoon if the snow becomes soft. Compared to the very cold weather four years ago this time it was comparatively balmy so there was no snow on the vegetation but several more feet of snow at Glacier Point and the high country reflecting the big snow pack this year, especially at 7,000 feet and above.

From Badger Pass to Glacier Point is a straightforward 11 mile each way or 22 miles round trip. As would be expected, the road is graded very well with relatively gradual ascents and descents. There’s a short climb at the beginning before a couple miles of gradual descent to Bridalveil Creek. This descent is not noticeable on the way out but more noticeable on the way back when it’s uphill. There’s a rolling section around Bridalveil Creek before a consistent (but gradual) climb begins after the turnoff to Horizon Ridge at mile 4.5. This climb continues for around 3 miles. There’s some more rolling on the ridge before the road begins it’s descent to Glaicer Point at around mile 9. Washburn Point is reached just after mile 10 and Glacier Point at mile 11. If Glacier Point is the destination, I’d definitely plan on reaching it since there aren’t many views along the way – the reward is at the turnaround point. The Clark Range view is at mile 6.25 but it pales in comparison to the views at Washburn Point and Glacier Point. The road largely spends it time traversing through a montane forest, which is very beautiful after a fresh snow but does not offer many views. The destination at Glacier Point is easily the highlight and it’s worth every bit of the effort.

For Sentinel Dome snowshoes are almost always required in the winter. It’s under a mile roundtrip from the road to the dome and back. Sentinel Dome offers a spectacular 360 degree view and a higher perspective on Half Dome across the Valley. I personally think the view from Glacier Point is more dramatic to Half Dome but Sentinel Dome is definitely worth the side trip if you’ve brought snowshoes and includes a wider vista taking in the Clark Range and El Capitan. If I bring snowshoes next time I will also include a visit to Taft Point, but it looks like this point is rarely visited so deep snow and potentially slow going with trail breaking seems like it would be encountered. Overall, the vast majority of visitors go to Dewey Point which is only 4 miles from Badger Pass (8 miles round trip). Dewey is a fantastic vista, particularly for El Capitan, but for Tenaya Canyon and Half Dome Glacier Point takes the win.

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Watkins Winter

In my opinion Mount Watkins has one of the best views in the Yosemite Valley region. Unlike some of the more famous vistas which have a road or a designated trail leading to them (and associated crowds), Mount Watkins has neither and this largely explains its relative obscurity both in summer and especially in winter. I won’t deny, the solitude one can experience from this majestic perch is part of the allure for me. What’s certain is from the end of the Watkins Ridge one receives the best view of the massive granite apron that constitutes the northwest face of Clouds Rest. The vista also includes an excellent vantage of Half Dome as it towers above Yosemite Valley. The stunning panorama encompasses a good chunk of the National Park including Mount Starr King, the Clark Range, North Dome, Basket Dome, Mount Conness, Mount Hoffman and Glacier Point.  In the summer it’s merely a 4 mile jaunt down from the Tioga Pass Highway to the edge of Watkins Ridge (where the best views are located) but in the winter it’s a more arduous trek up from Yosemite Valley via the switchbacks of the Snow Creek Trail and then off-trail from the vicinity of the Snow Creek Cabin up to the Watkins summit and down the ridge. However, the extra effort to reach Mount Watkins in the winter is richly rewarded with an experience is enhanced by snowy winter conditions.

The Snow Creek Trail is south facing and the lower part typically melts out a few days after snowfall (at least to the point snowshoes are not required; though some snow and ice may remain). After a fairly level trek to Mirror Lake and about a mile beyond, the trail gets to business with a long series of rocky switchbacks. Fortunately, views open up pretty quick and they only improve as one ascends. The most spectacular feature during this ascent is Half Dome, directly across the canyon, but in my opinion, the view across Tenaya Canyon to the Quarter Domes is equally impressive. Unless a heavy low elevation snowfall just occurred, snowshoes are typically only required near the top of the Snow Creek climb at ~6,500 ft where the gradient begins to flatten. The trail follows close to picturesque Snow Creek for a short distance before crossing the creek using a bridge. After the crossing the trail resumes a gradual climb through the forest up to a meadow area. Trees are marked with blazes to guide the direction if you happen to be breaking trail. The stretch from the Snow Creek crossing to the cabin passes through a forest that turns into a winter wonderland with an excellent mixture of large and small trees along with a diverse variety of pines and firs. The Snow Creek Cabin is just off the trail on the opposite side of a meadow. Topo maps have the cabin marked relatively close to its actual location and there are plenty of posts on the internet providing GPX tracks and specific directions. The cabin used to be somewhat of a secret as it’s open to the public for overnight stays during the winter, but word has gotten out and the internet is not helping. Staying at the cabin in the winter used to be unrestricted but unfortunately, too much demand has caused the park service to get out their free-flowing ream of red tape to implement yet another quota. Now one must either pick up a permit the afternoon before the trip (and arrange for accommodation or camping int he Valley) or the morning of the trip when the visitor center opens with no guarantees any spots are remaining. Neither option is convenient and makes heading up there for a day trip much more appealing. It turns out climbing up the steep Snow Creek trail to the Snow Creek Cabin and beyond to Mount Watkins is much more pleasant without overnight gear anyway. Perhaps if one wanted to continue beyond for a winter ascent of Mount Hoffman or Tuolumne Meadows I would consider a night at the cabin.     

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Although off trail, reaching Mount Watkins is fairly straightforward from the cabin. From the Snow Creek Cabin head southeast through open forest and then make a short but steep climb directly to the high point of Mount Watkins at 8,500 ft. The summit area is quite broad and therefore the high point does not have the best view. Instead, I highly recommend continuing down southwest from the summit around a half mile along the gently-sloping granite ridge studded with occasional pines. Eventually at around 8,200 ft the ridge becomes narrower and steeper and at this point the superior views are realized as one can gaze down into the depths of Tenaya Canyon all the way up the granite face to the summit of Clouds Rest. The sweeping panorama takes in everything from Mount Conness to the Yosemite Valley floor. The ridge is quite exposed to the elements and the stunted pines and junipers growing here are particularly picturesque making for some great photography subjects to pair with the magnificent view.